If you think that the police's profiling of terror suspects is something that only happens to other people - think again. Today's panicky Plod doesn't seem to be very discriminating at all. And you could be next.
Techie David Mery has published an account of being arrested, and having his computers confiscated, because he happened to be wearing a rucksack on the London Underground the day after the 27/7 bombings. Or as phone blogger Russell Beattie put it -
‘LONDON (Reuters): - A London underground train station was evacuated and part of a main east-west line closed in a security alert on Thursday, three weeks after suicide bombers killed 52 people on the transport network, police said. A Transport Police spokeswoman said Southwark station was closed and Jubilee Line services suspended between Waterloo and Canary Wharf in the east London business district.’
This Reuters story was written while the police were detaining me in Southwark tube station and the bomb squad was checking my rucksack. When they were through, the two explosive specialists walked out of the tube station smiling and commenting ‘nice laptop’. The officers offered apologies on behalf of the Metropolitan Police. Then they arrested me.
2005-07-28 Thursday - Southwark, London
19:10 From my workplace in Southwark, South London, I arrange by text message (SMS) to meet my girlfriend at Hanover Square. To save time – as I suppose – I decide to the take the tube to Bond Street instead of my usual bus. I am wearing greenish Merrell shoes, black trousers, t-shirt, black lightweight Gap jumper, dark grey/black light rainproof Schott jacket and grey Top Shop cap.
I am carrying a black rucksack I use as a workbag.
19:21 I enter Southwark tube station, passing uniformed police officers by the entrance, and more police beyond the gate. I walk down to the platform, peering down to see the steps as, thanks to a small eye infection, I'm wearing specs instead of my usual contact lenses.
The platform is mostly empty. The next train is scheduled to arrive in a few minutes. As other people drift onto the platform, I sit down against the wall with my rucksack still on my back.
I check for messages on my phone, then take out a printout of an article about Wikipedia from inside jacket pocket and begin to read.
The train enters the station.
Police officers, all uniformed men, appear on the platform and surround me. They ask me to take off my rucksack. They must immediately notice my French accent, still strong after living more than 12 years in London. They handcuff me – hands behind my back (the handcuffs have a rigid bar between the two cuffs – i.e. not like the ones often shown on TV). They take my rucksack out of my sight. They explain that this is for my safety, and that they are acting under the authority of the Terrorism Act.
I am told that I am being stopped and searched because they found my behaviour suspicious (from direct observation and then from watching me on the CCTV system):
* I went into the station without looking at the police officers at the entrance or by the gates, i.e. I was ‘avoiding them’
* two other men entered the station at about the same time as me
* I am wearing a jacket ‘too warm for the season’
* I am carrying a bulky rucksack
* I kept my rucksack with me at all times (I had it on my back)
* I looked at people coming on the platform
* I played with my mobile phone and then took a paper from inside my jacket.
They empty the content of all my pockets into two of their helmets and search me. They loosen my belt.
One or two trains arrive and depart normally, with people getting on and off. Then a train arrives, and moves slowly right through the station. The driver is told not to stop. After that, no more trains pass through the station.
We move away from the edge of the platform into the emergency staircase. We’re shown the way by two London Underground staffs that then disappear. I sit down on the (dirty) steps.
Some police officers go up and later come back. Their radio system does not work deep down in the station. The police say they can't validate my address. I suggest they ask the security guard where I work, two streets away. They use walkie-talkies to pass the phone number I give them to colleagues.
They swap the handcuffs from behind my back to in front of my body, and we move up the escalators to the ticket office floor of the station. I sit in the booth by the ticket gates for about one minute before a police officer decides we should go outside. We go up to the station doors, and I realise that the station is cordoned off.
Two bomb squad officers pass by getting out of the station. One turns to me and says in a joking tone: ‘Nice laptop!’ A police officer expresses apologies on behalf of the Metropolitan Police, and explains that we are waiting for a more senior officer to express further apologies. They take off the handcuffs and start giving me back my possessions: my purse, keys, some papers.
Another police officer interferes, saying that this is not proper. I am handcuffed again.
A police van arrives and I am told that I will wait in the back. After about five minutes, a police officer formally arrests me (until that point I was apparently only detained).
20:53 Arrested for suspicious behaviour and public nuisance, I am driven off to Walworth police station. Forms are filled in (Code: MS - Custody No: 0504437), and my handcuffs taken off so I can write my address. I am given a form 3053 about my rights.
I make one correction to the police statement describing my detention: no train passed before I was stopped. I empty my pockets of the few things they had given me back at the tube station, and am searched again. My possessions are put in evidence bags.
They take two Polaroid photographs (I stand my back to the wall). A few minutes later, they take another set of two.
After washing my hand, a female police officer fingerprints me (all the fingers and palms) by putting some grease on my hands and holding them on a glass surface of some piece of equipment. She then takes DNA swabs from each side of my mouth.
22:06 I am allowed a phone call to my girlfriend: a female police officer dials the number, asks for my girlfriend and tell her that she will transfer me over. My girlfriend is crying and keeps repeating: ‘What happened, I thought you were injured or had an accident, where were you, why didn’t you call me back’. I explain that I'm fine and in a police station, my phone was taken and the police officers wouldn’t allow me to call. She wants to come to the station. I try to reassure her and ask her to stay at home as I don’t know how long it’ll take and she caught a cold while waiting and looking for me outside.
22:30 (approx.) I am put into an individual police cell. I ask for a glass of water. The officer says ‘yes’ but doesn’t bring it. About 30 minutes later a female officer asks if I am ok. I again request a glass of water, and it is brought to me.
A plainclothes officer tells me that my flat will be searched under the Terrorism Act. I request that my girlfriend be called beforehand, so that she won't be too scared. This request is accepted, and I am asked for her phone number. I don’t know it – it is stored in my phone – so I explain it is with the officer at the desk. I later find out that they don’t call her.
Apart from the two visits to the cell (the one check and the info about the search), every now and then I notice an eye behind the eyehole but I'm not told anything.
00:25-01:26 at my flat. Three uniformed police officers search my flat and interview my girlfriend. One of them asks her to show him some files on her laptop; he’s particularly interested in all ‘documents’. They take away from the flat several mobile phones, an old IBM laptop, a BeBox tower computer (an obsolete kind of PC from the mid 1990s), a handheld GPS receiver (positioning device with maps, very useful when walking), a frequency counter (picked it up at a radio amateur junk fair because it looked interesting), a radio scanner (receives short wave radio stations), a blue RS232C breakout box (a tool I used to use when reviewing modems for computer magazines), some cables, a Black Hat computer security conference leaflet, envelopes with addresses, maps of Prague and London Heathrow, some business cards, and some photographs I took – in particular techie ones such as the ones of the ACM97 conference – for the 50 years of the Association of Computing Machinery.
This list is from my girlfriend’s memory, or what we have noticed is missing since. The police officers left a notice of the powers to search premises, but this doesn’t include an inventory.
03:20 (approx.) I am retrieved from my cell and formally interviewed by a plainclothes CID officer. I see my rucksack for the first time since I took it off at the tube station. I also notice some of my possessions from home, all bagged up in evidence bags except the tower computer.
This interview is recorded on two tapes. The police again read out their version of events. I make two corrections: again pointing out that no train passed between my arrival on the platform and when I was detained, and that I didn’t take any wire out of my pocket – I didn’t have any wire. The officer suggests the computer cables I had in my rucksack could have been confused for wires. I tell him I didn't take my rucksack off until asked by the police so this is impossible.
Three items I was carrying seem to be of particular interest to the officer:
* a small promotional booklet I got at the Screen on the Green cinema at the screening of The Assassination of Richard Nixon,
* a folded A4 page where I did some doodles in red ink. The police suspect it could be a map (it really could be anything one would like to see in the doodles; I have no recollection when or why I did them), and
* the active part of an old work pass where one can see the induction loop and one integrated circuit.
Items from the flat the police officer asks about: the RS232C breakout box, the radio scanner and the frequency counter.
The officer explains what made them change their mind and arrest me instead of releasing me. It was because of my connection with my employer. Apparently, on August 4th, 2004 there was a firearms incident at the company where I work. (The next day I find out that there had indeed been a hoax call the previous year, apparently from a temp worker claiming there was an armed intruder in one of the buildings.) Also that some staff had been seen photographing tube stations with a camera phone. (Most of my colleagues do have camera phones – also on 2nd June, as part of a team building exercise, new graduates were supposed to photograph landmarks and try to get a picture of themselves with a policeman.)
04:30 The interviewing officer releases me on bail, without requiring security. On my 60B bail form it says ‘I have been granted bail in accordance with the Bail Act, 1976, under the provisions of Section 34(5)/(7) Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and that I must surrender to custody at Walworth Police Station on Wednesday 31 August, 2005 at 09:00.’
He gives me back most of the contents of my pockets, including my Oyster card, USB key and iPod) and a few things from my rucksack (umbrella and eye drop bottles). Initially he says he will keep my mobile phone. I ask if I can at least have the SIM card? He says no, that’s what they need; but he eventually changes his mind and lets me keep the whole phone.
I leave the police station and take a night bus home.
The next day. I get a solicitor and arrange to meet him on the Monday.
The solicitor advises waiting until 31st August.
09:00 I arrive at police station to surrender to custody as required by bail, and am joined by solicitor five minutes later. We are invited into a small room by a plainclothes police officer a further few minutes later. The officer tells us that it’s ‘NFA’ (no further action), explains that this means that they are dropping the charges, and briefly apologises. The officer (DS) in charge of the case is away from the station so the process of clearing up my case is suspended until he signs the papers cancelling the bail and authorising the release of my possessions. The meeting lasts about five minutes.
I send letters to the Data Protection Registrars of the London Underground, Transport for London (replied on 2005-09-05 that the ‘retention period for recording of stations is fourteen days’), the British Transport Police and the Metropolitan Police. The first three letters ask for any data, including CCTV footage, related to the incident on July 28, while the final one is much more generic asking for any data they have on me. They all have forty days to respond.
I talk to my solicitor about ensuring the Police return all my possessions, give us all the inquiry documents (which they may or may not do) and expunge police records (apparently unlikely to happen).
The solicitor sends a letter to the officer in charge of my case asking him to authorise the release of my possessions and forward us a copy of the custody record, and conveying to him how upset I am.
I write to my Member of Parliament about my concerns on what is happening to our civil liberties.
[To be continued...]
The weather was too cold for the season
So, basically the Police have decided that wearing a rain jacket, carrying a rucksack with a laptop inside, looking down at the steps while going in a tube station and checking your phone for messages just tick too many checkmarks on their checklist and make you a terrorist suspect. How many other people are not only wrongly detained but wrongly arrested every week in similar circumstances as myself? And how many of them are also computer and telecoms enthusiasts that fit the Police's terrorist behavioural profile so well? I accept and understand spot checks can be useful, but profiling... this would be a joke if it didn't affect many ‘innocent bystanders’.
The officers must have failed to hear the Met Commissioner Sir Ian Blair when he claimed ‘We are not in the business of stopping and searching people who fit a particular profile.’
Interestingly, while a police officer did state that my rain jacket ‘too warm for the season’, could it have been instead that the weather was too cold for the season? This is what the other Met, the Met Office had to say about the weather the day before: ‘London recorded its coldest July day for 25 years on the 27th when temperatures only reached 15.6 °C.’ At least I'm still alive and, over a month later, no longer under arrest.
The Police eventually decided to take No Further Action (NFA): ‘a decision not to proceed with a prosecution’. In a democratic country such as the UK, one would be forgiven for naively thinking that this is the end of the matter. Under the current laws the Police are not only entitled to keep my fingerprints and DNA samples, but apparently, according to my solicitor, they are also entitled to hold on to what they gathered during their investigation: notepads of the arresting officers, photographs, interviewing tapes and any other documents they collected and entered in the Police National Computer (PNC). (Also, at the time of this writing, I still have no letter stating that I'm effectively off the hook and I still haven't been given any of my possessions back.)
Aren't the Police supposed to keep tabs only on convicted criminals and individuals under investigation? So even though the Police consider me innocent, otherwise they would have had a duty to prosecute me, there will remain some mention (what exactly?) in the PNC and, if they fully share their information with Interpol, in other Police databases around the world as well. Isn't a state that keeps files on innocent persons a police state?
This gradual erosion of our fundamental liberties should be of concern to us all.
As Mery himself puts it, "Techies and terrorist behavioural profiles are the same".
Mery dug out the police's own training guide for identifying potential suicide bombers, and found this -
‘Behavior. Does the individual act oddly, appear fearful, or use mannerisms that do not fit in? Examples include repeatedly circling an area on foot or in a car, pacing back and forth in front of a venue, glancing left and right while walking slowly, fidgeting with something under his or her clothes, exhibiting an unwillingness to make eye contact, mumbling (prayer), or repeatedly checking a watch or cell phone. [...]
Appearance. Is the clothing, grooming, gender, or age of an individual out of place within the context of the environment? Examples include someone wearing a heavy coat or jacket in warm weather [...]
Equipment. Does a briefcase, duffle bag, or backpack seem extra heavy or have protrusions or visible wires? When the individual sits down, is he or she overly protective of this item or preoccupied with it? [...]’
I think that describes many of us. If applied to Silicon Valley, the US economy would be paralyzed at a stroke. And Bill Gates would be calling a lawyer.
London's jumpy police said that their suspicions were aroused because Mery was wearing a thick coat. The jacket, insisted a constable, was "too cold for the season". A similar justification was used for the fatal shooting of a Brazilian.
But on the chilly day in question, temperatures had hit a 15-year low. A fact that only London's finest failed to notice.
We're perhaps blessed that the Met chose the wrong suspect, and chanced upon a former professional journalist looking at his phone. In the 1990s David Mery edited the extraordinary, now sadly defunct programmer's journal EXE, a tiny publication which married geek curiosity to literate wit, and was the home for many years to Verity Stob - the poet laureate of computer programming. Mery and his predecessor Robert Schiffreen created a publication with an appreciation way beyond its circulation figures, and such wonders live long in the memory of anyone who's worked in publishing.
But what about the less well connected?
As David himself remarked about his ordeal - "at least I'm still alive". ®